by October 28, 2002 0 comments

Media technologies have come a long way from the days of bulky files, resource-hungry editing and slow streaming in a tiny-window over the Web. These changes have been driven by better hardware, efficient compression technologies and more bandwidth available for serving content. The three major players fighting it out in this space are Microsoft, Apple and RealNetworks. Then of course, there are also open standards like MPEG 4 adding fuel to the fire. Let’s see what these players have to offer in the digital media content delivery and their technologies.

New at Microsoft
Code-named Corona, the first public Beta of Microsoft’s Windows Media 9 Series (official name) was formally launched for testing on 4th September this year. This digital media technology now forms the heart of all Microsoft media products, which include the latest Media Player 9 (still in Beta), Windows Media Encoder 9 Series (again in Beta), the Media SDK, and the new streaming server. According to industry analysts, this is an effort to curb the threat open-standards like MPEG-4 pose to proprietary media technology. Additionally, it has competition from Apple’s QuickTime and RealNetworks RealMedia formats.

The most notable improvement in technology here is the new video 
and audio codecs

Of the many improvements this technology boasts of, the most notable one is brand new video and audio codecs. These, like MPEG-4, use a smaller bit size, which is supposed to reduce file sizes by as much as 20% without loosing out on quality. This helps in faster delivery of media. Another notable feature is support for 5.1-channel sound, which enhances the quality for streamed movies over the Internet and playing CD music (in WMA format). The next major driving factor for Media 9 series is rights management, especially since piracy is a major concern for the music industry when it comes to distributing music over the Internet. It incorporates a technology called DRM (Digital Rights Management), which prevents unauthorized copying of audio and video. This definitely gives this format added advantage with content producers and media solution vendors, and
many have already embraced the new offering.

The new media player would be distributed in stand-alone mode unlike the previous version, which was bundled with Windows XP. The difference will be in the inherent feature of Windows XP with digital rights. Media Player 9 Series also does efficient pre-fetching and buffering of data (called FastStream) while you are watching a streaming telecast. This ensures smoother media playback.

Other features of the player include a good amount of skins and colors, which can be easily changed. Also, unlike the earlier player, the big box on the bottom-right of the desktop, for switching to Full-mode (while the player was in skin-mode) is gone. And when you minimize the player, a mini-control on the task bar lets you operate the player. The player also features a cross-fader with controllable overlap time and a volume leveler. To categorize your music, the player has enhancements to the way play lists and folders are created. It also organizes songs on the basis of metadata and can fetch song information from the Internet.

Like Media Player 8, the new version has limited support for MP3 encoding. You would need to buy components for ripping and encoding MP3s at a higher bit-rate. The writing software is again from Roxio. A big drawback with Windows media is that it has no versions for other operating systems, unlike earlier players, which were available for Macintosh and Sun Solaris platforms.

New at Apple
First an interesting fact from Apple’s website — “Everyday more than 300,000 people download QuickTime”. QuickTime was first introduced around ten years ago, and QuickTime 5 became the chosen format for video streaming soon after it was introduced. Not only that, but digital cameras and enhanced CDs depend on QuickTime to store and deliver multimedia content. The family of software includes QuickTime Player, QuickTime Pro (for media authoring and format conversions), QuickTime Streaming Server (and Darwin Streaming Server, the open-source version, with ports to Solaris, Linux and Windows NT/2000 platforms) and QuickTime Broadcaster (for quickly broadcasting media content). The notable feature that QuickTime boasts of is AppleScript. This simplifies repetitive tasks in media authoring and broadcasting by using scripts. All said and done, the question is–What is new in the world of QuickTime? The latest version of QuickTime is 6, and interestingly, the announcement of its launch was made on the same day that Microsoft released the public Beta of Media 9 Series.

A USP for the streaming solution from RealNetworks is that it is available for all major OS platforms

There seems to be a stark similarity in the paths that all media technology vendors are taking. Streaming is an area where we saw improvements from Microsoft (called FastStream). QuickTime 6 calls it Instant-On, which aims to improve the experience for broadband subscribers in terms of smoothness of stream playback and seeking through a stream. Like the Media 9 Series going towards a more compressed file format, QuickTime 6 supports open-standards based MPEG-4 format. This feature is ‘default’ for them because some standards for MPEG-4 were taken from QuickTime format only. The MPEG-4 video codec in QuickTime 6 claims to have high-performance and ability to deliver better results over a range of streaming data rates. Also, any ISO MPEG-4 compliant player can play this format back.

MPEG-4 uses AAC audio, which work on a signal-processing algorithm from Dolby Laboratories. Again, like the latest WMA format, AAC provides better compression without loosing sound quality. This also gives the feature of VBR encoding in QuickTime now. Other changes are cosmetic to the player interface, support for Flash 5, and the latest JPEG 2000 codec for still images. QuickTime also offers more input and output file formats than Windows Media (except MP3!).

QuickTime 6 lacks in-built support for MPEG-2 playback. Though this was there in the public preview version, it has been removed from the final version and has to be purchased separately from Apple’s online store.

New at RealNetworks
RealNetworks have been in the business of delivering media content over the Internet for the last seven years. Perhaps due to their first mover advantage, they boast of about 285 million end-users using their player and solutions today. The suite of products today includes Real Producer (for authoring), Real Player, RealOne Player, RealSystem Server and Proxy, and the streaming solution. The suite of tools is available as the RealMedia Production Bundle.

RealVideo 9 is the latest in video from the company. Like the competition, this is also driven by a brand new codec that offers higher compression rates, yet preserving quality, across bandwidth bitrates. RealVideo 9 also incorporates advances in audio and now offers RealAudio Surround. This uses Dolby Pro Logic or Circle Surround encoders to create surround audio content. The user experiences 5.1-channel sound at bandwidths as low as 44 kbps. The claimed improvements on quality are astonishing–as much as 30% over the previous RealVideo 8 format. The new RealVideo format also claims to have the same quality as MPEG-4, but at half the bitrate! We are yet to check out these claims though.

For audio, the successor to RealAudio G2 is RealAudio 8 with Atrac 3, which is a Sony proprietary format that claims to reduce bandwidth usage by 35-40% and file sizes by half compared to MP3. Real Player is available for Windows and Linux platforms. Additionally, it also supports all formats and resolutions for HDTV broadcasts and interlaced video support for playback on TV. Though a regular user will not be directly using these features as of now, these elicit the era of fusion of the Internet and personal entertainment devices.

A big USP for the streaming solution from RealNetworks (called Helix Universal Server) is that it is available for all major operating system platforms. It also supports all popular media formats, including Windows Media and QuickTime. An interesting fact on the company’s website states that Helix outperforms Windows Media server in serving Windows Media content! The server also features support for various MPEG-4 encoders (like QuickTime and MPEG4IP). This move is a step lesser than Apple’s QuickTime in the sense that Helix streams MPEG-4 content, but RealNetworks does not intend to provide open-standards based encoders for the format.

The Bottom Line: All media solution providers are following roughly the same path with only slight differences in strategy. Microsoft is sticking to their closed proprietary format and luring content providers with secure digital content rights. Apple is embracing the open-source community and is counting on it to popularize its technologies. RealNetworks seems to be following a wait-and-watch strategy. What would come of the media wars is for us to see.

Ashish Sharma

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